Updated: Jan 1, 2021
(Source: The Breakroom (http://breakroom.nora.com)
Yes, I said it - I encountered extreme burnout in 2019.
I always believed I was resilient. No matter what challenges came my way, I could always find a way out of that rubble. This time around though, it caused a lot more trouble. My health experienced a new low. Heading a whole company was something I had been diligently working towards. Stepping down from that GM/President role seemed like a big personal blow as though I was self-sabotaging my career, self-confidence and financial stability. Crushed and defeated, I took a 3 month leave to get better. When I finally decided I needed to resign to recover, I also felt a great deal of shame, guilt and rejection.
I was depleted and felt like I had nothing to give anymore. For me, it was the culmination of everything from the last few years. The end result was not great but I also recovered from it. I also did not do this alone - my little son, my husband, my manager along with a whole bunch of medical doctors worked together to get me to the other side. This is the story of that journey of how I ended in extreme burnout, what led to it and what I learned from it. Some of my hopes on why I am sharing this journey now are:
Normalize the epidemic of burnout but not desensitize us as a society
Help others see the warning signs to prevent burnout in the first place
Help others who might be going through this
Find people who would like to collaborate with me to end this epidemic
How did the burnout start? 5 years in the making...
Burnout did not decide to hit me one fine day. This goes back to April 19th, 2014 at our extremely long ultrasound appointment. I was 19 weeks pregnant then. However, that ultrasound appointment turned our lives upside down. Since then as a family we have had a lot of firsts, each of which has wreaked personal havoc:
We heard the diagnosis that our unborn baby had a serious congenital heart defect. He would need open heart surgery immediately after birth to survive
We wheeled our 8-day old newborn, Taneesh to the OR after signing what seemed like million waiver forms
We waited in anticipation for 13 full hours to hear what was going on at the surgery
We saw our 5-week old going into cardiac arrest in the middle of the night at home
Taneesh's chest post-surgery had to be kept open for a few days and we could see his tiny beating heart
We pinned our tiny Taneesh down to give him injections twice daily for months
We fed Taneesh with a feeding tube for months after he suffered vocal cord paralysis from his first surgery
At 5 weeks, Taneesh underwent another long open heart surgery
Less than a week after his 3rd birthday, Taneesh has his 3rd open heart surgery
We saw life-supporting IVs that covered every inch of Taneesh's tiny body
In the midst of this, life also felt like it was returning to normal - at least what our normal was. I formally returned back to work when we finally moved back to Vancouver in 2016. In 2017 Taneesh had his 3rd open-heart surgery. He recovered well and I accepted the work challenges and career promotions that came along the way. I mean who would decline promotions right? Only now I have learnt to #unlearn that not all roles and promotions are right. Not because I could not do them; rather they were not the right fit for me from cultural, environmental, people among other things. Role readiness is so critical - both for people looking to join a company as well as for companies hiring for a role. There needs to be a mutual fit and the timing needs to be right. For roles that are brought on as change agents, role readiness is much more critical.
I rebuilt our product team with some of the best hires and that was wonderful for the business. I made several unpopular and hard decisions at that time that were necessary for turning around the business, like in any other leadership role. I stretched myself and kept taking on challenging projects. Work has always been this sacred place where I could use the smarts of a collective team together to unpack and solve hard business problems and make an impact. However, like anything else, nothing comes for free… The stressors from our personal and professional lives intermingle to create an extremely toxic environment for our wellbeing. It's like all the different forms of stressors become best buddies to work against you - if only we could get along with each other this well :)
I let work define me:
I also realized that I used my work as a place of refuge to stop my mind from going back to hospitals and surgeries. I wanted to be a great employee and an example for my team. I wanted to help our company climb its next chapter of growth and believed that this happens from a lot of hard work. I then let work become my identity and somehow it became my purpose to get our company though its everyday numerous challenges and numerous dysfunctions. It was NOT something I had to do, but somehow I felt I needed to help "fix" and do. Of all those times when we were at the hospital where I felt helpless; I naively believed that as people we had a greater role in making things happen in business if we put our mind to it. This was such a big mistake.
Losing some of our best team members earlier this year was the straw that broke the camel’s back or in this case my back. I felt helpless and a big FAILURE for not being able to retain our people. I also realized the truth behind Drucker’s infamous statement “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” - I became the “antibody” in my innate desire to help improve the systemic challenges and dysfunctions of a business.
My signs of acute burnout:
I was running on adrenaline and had probably switched to a survival mode some time within the last 5 years. And I never came out of it. We got so busy in the humdrum of ensuring our little guy was living and I was helping chart the new future of our business that I forgot self-care and self-empathy. And just like that, my health deteriorated in a quick span of 2 years, just like that.
What I was doing day-to-day did not help the cause either. I ignored the many symptoms of my chronic stress for months. Some of the ones I consider most alarming were:
I worked non stop even during our vacation in Hawaii
I kept on taking one challenging project after the other. I was driven, hardworking and deeply valued this strength (which also became my biggest weakness)
I regarded working hard as a badge of honour. “Bosky always works and never sleeps” - became an accepted norm I had accepted without questioning why this was the norm for only me
I would get tired walking 2 blocks
Recurring stress hives
Insomnia for over a year and a half
Skipping meals day after day - some days, I would only eat dinner
Frequently throwing up at the office
Crying even when someone would say “hello”
In May, I ended up crying in front of my manager numerous times in a day, it did not matter if I had done something good, it also did not matter if we were having a casual conversation, it also did not matter if we were simply walking outside. I was feeling sick, my BP read 160/90 and I still believed I could do this. I finally went to my doctor after my intense crying episodes at work and we diagnosed acute anemia among other things and she deeply worried about my health. She also said that I could literally pass out any time and that I needed to STOP. She further told us that she had never seen such abnormal numbers - they were worse than our son’s numbers when he was fighting for his life. I knew I had crossed the threshold this time and that I had to change things up.
How I got better?
There were 3 people in particular who I owe getting out of my burnout:
Our 4-year-old son: Taneesh saved my life big time. Instead of trying to be a superhero at work, I deserve to be content and enjoy what I love.
I started reading his school journal book about how he always missed me
One night, he then asked me why I would cry in the night and why I stopped smiling - this was a wake-up call for me.
My husband and best friend: Kaustav’s constant support has been with me since we were young students in Engineering College. When I struggled with doing what was right for me and for us as a family, Kaustav assured me that we would be fine. And we have been fine, yes I am not working in a corporate role, not making what I was making; however, I am happier and we as a family are so much happier. It's like I have my life back. I am still driven and want to change the world but I also now know to fight for what is right and where I can truly make an impact.
My manager: Nathan was most patient as I struggled my way with what was probably the darkest period of my professional career. He probably saw more than I tried letting out. From simple words such as "... We will make this work, ... however long it takes" greatly helped in decreasing the constant feeling of guilt I was having. Nathan's acknowledgement about what I was going through and helping me reflect is something I owe my life to.
During my leave, I needed to learn how to disconnect from work - this was hard. I still deeply cared about what was happening and how the team was doing. I wanted our strategic initiatives to succeed and I deeply truly wanted the people to have fun achieving the outcomes. However, I knew I needed to start caring for me instead of others this one time. I tried sound healing, pilates, yoga and even simply enjoying doing nothing.
I also used this time to think about what I truly wanted to do once I got better. After lots of encouragement from people who thankfully still believed in me, I took the plunge and launched Spark To Substance, an innovation and product management studio here in Vancouver. I realized my passion was in solving the right problems through people and creativity. This is where I decided to combine my background and experience in human-centred design and product management to work with teams to unlock solving the right business problems with empathy, scale all whilst having fun!
What I have learnt:
These are some of the lessons I learned:
Learning to let go of minor annoyances and that perennial perfection is not possible. Realizing that not everything needs to be fixed right at this moment. #Unlearn "fixing" everything. Some problems can be left in an incomplete state.
Listening To yourself:
Our bodies are probably pretty good at hiding things. When we notice changes in sleep patterns, appetite, skin, tiredness, mood, whatever it might be, we should listen and go to our doctor. Add self-care in your daily ToDos. #Unlearn forgetting to clock out.
Slay Your Grizzlies:
We all have our insecurities and demons. I loved the analogy of “Grizzlies”, something Laurie Shultz, CEO at Galvanize shared with me. There is no shame in acknowledging them and if and when needed, to speak about them with who we feel comfortable with - this is different than seeking pity or excuse though. We also should feel no shame in asking for help - whether this help is from your partner, spouse, doctors, coaches or therapist or your employer. We need to normalize burnout like how people talk about other ailments. #Unlearn blaming yourself for all the problems. Reflect on whether you are in the right place at the right time, never ever compromise on your values. Assess role readiness at all times at work. Its business, things change and it's OK when a misfit occurs.
Re-discover Your Passion:
Ask yourself your purpose and what drives you. Money is important, yes we live in one of the most expensive cities, but we need to find an outlet for things that intellectually and emotionally stimulate us. Whether it be giving back or at times taking a step down or a different direction altogether. #Unlearn that the only way forward is not an upward career growth. #Unlearn hustling but not forgetting the need for drive, passion and belief to get things done. There is a difference.
Burnout is real and can happen to anyone
This is very real and can happen to anyone. It is also different from life’s everyday stressors. I used to believe very naively that it would not happen to me but it did. I thought I had the tools and knew the warning signs. Then I also read about so many others who have experienced it for a lot of different reasons.
I am hoping that the story of my journey could help others who might be close to burnout or actively experiencing burnout at present. There is help and one can recover and come out of this, much stronger than before if you want it.
My vision for 2020 & beyond
It is my personal mission and purpose in life to help solve this burnout epidemic. Further, I absolutely do not want any other person to feel isolated, ashamed or suffer from chronic anxiety. I am looking forward to supporting anyone in the following scenarios:
Individuals who might still be traumatized by their last burnout
Individuals who are fearing that they are heading towards a burnout
Leaders who want to build wholesome and healthier teams
Individuals who might want to take a stand and make a difference when they see someone in their family, friends or workplace with signs of burnout
We have launched a few different programs to work with individuals, leaders and organizations to #endburnouttoday and look forward to collaborating with you to build resilient and holistically healthier workplaces. The details for these programs can be found below:
Mental Health for Product Managers: Learn tools and strategies to manage your Mental Health as Product Managers and apply for PMDojo's Product Accelerator.
The Taboo of Burnout Masterclass: Please review the details and sign up online here.
Recognize, Survive and Rebound from Burnout 1:1 OR Mastermind Format: We have a rolling cohort that starts every month. Please register and sign up online here.
Holistic Workplace Health & Rituals Workshops: Since we will customize each workshop to align with your culture, values, strategy and people, please contact us if you are interested in this. Reach us here.
Let's not try to COPE this ALONE - let's OVERCOME this TOGETHER!